From a very young age, Music Biz president James Donio would eagerly watch the Academy Awards the way other kids would watch the Super Bowl. At the age of 10, he received the record Meet the Monkees as a birthday gift. These were indelibly formative experiences for James, instilling in him a lifelong love for the magic and power of the entertainment business.
Since then, James has channeled his undiminished, youthful passion for the entertainment industry into a vibrant and varied career. He has been with the Music Business Association (Music Biz) for 31 years, and since 2004 he’s led the non-profit as President. His innovative spirit, diplomacy, swagger, and refreshing openness have been potent assets to Music Biz, keeping the organization resonant and relevant amidst the volatile and ever-changing nature of the industry.
“I am proud that this organization celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2018,” James says. “We have always found a way to get the job done. We are a blank canvas: we absorb everything, address the drama, and come together. We have the unique opportunity to change when we need to change.”
Music Biz is a not-for-profit membership organization that advances, promotes and invests in the future of the music business by providing a trusted forum where ideas and cooperation flourish. Through events, education and engagement, the Association brings together the full breadth of the industry for unparalleled access to networking, resources and thought leadership.
For James, Music Biz has been an all-consuming passion. “I’ve been here half my life,” James says. “The work has opened up a lot of opportunities and allowed me to make a difference.” One profound difference James has made since becoming President of the Association is revitalizing the Music Biz’s Annual Conference, making it the definitive gathering for more than 2,000 attendees spanning the breadth of the music business. Attendance has almost tripled since 2015, when the event moved to Nashville for the first time.
As the Music Biz 2016 Annual Conference approached, James stared down a powerful personal life vs. professional life quandary. Tennessee was embroiled in the fray around “Bathroom Bill” legislation, with the state legislature voting for anti-LGBTQ+ measures aimed at transgender citizens. Though Nashville is something of an island of openness within Tennessee, James was faced with some members and sponsors calling for a boycott of the Conference or for its relocation.
“It was a challenging position to be in,” James admits. “The Conference was in conflict with a policy antagonistic to the music industry, which thrives on diversity and acceptance. The battle also hit home for me as an openly gay man.” With the event five weeks away, James decided to recommend to the Music Biz Board that they keep the Conference in Nashville, but work with the city and its mayor to make it a teachable moment with a special session produced in partnership with the GLAAD organization, previewed in his own stirring speaking appearance. His goal was to show the value of the LGBTQ+ community to the music business. Thousands of people showed up for the Conference, and it was a resounding success. “That was a tangible and specific instance where who I am, and who I choose to love, directly impacted my business decisions.
Besides his pragmatic manor, central to James’s successes at Music Biz has been his interpersonal skills. “You have to be a politician and a lobbyist to develop consensus. You have to be able to advocate for different points of view so everyone feels represented. Sometimes you have to bite your tongue and think one step ahead of your emotions,” he says.
In addition to his role with Music Biz, James has emerged an intrepid and engaging keynote speaker on the music industry at large, and on LGBTQ+ issues. He’s also an inexhaustible source of pop culture trivia with a sharp critical mind, and frequently flexes his film critic insights via social media. James has contributed to the pop culture dialogue as an actor, musician, writer, costume designer, choreographer, college professor, and a television commentator. In 1986, he won a local Emmy Award for “Outstanding Cultural Programming” for being part of a special broadcast entitled “Mummer Mania.” In addition, James has also appeared in such movies as Mannequin and Stealing Home. “I am a performer at heart. I love to be onstage,” he shares.
James’ fascinatingly fishtailing career has served him well in the realm of empowering others with education. He has been an adjunct professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey since 2014, where he teaches Introduction to the Music Business Ecosystem. In January 2019, James began teaching a similar class at his alma mater, Philadelphia’s Temple University. Through these experiences, James has seen firsthand the transformative power of educational initiatives, and he’s funneled this inspiration back into Music Biz.
In 2015, the Association announced its Academic Partnership Program which provides support and exclusive opportunities for schools, students and faculty members who are fostering the future of the music industry through music business, technology and entertainment law education. To date, this program now includes more than 20 colleges and several thousand students among its members.
“It is imperative that we ensure the future prosperity of the music business by providing support for those who are training the next generation of industry executives and creators, as well as the students themselves. Our Academic Partnership Program helps accomplish that,” James says.
James’ path in the industry began with his desire to be the next Gene Sisksel or Roger Ebert upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. After stints writing and editing for magazines and newspapers, James applied for a job at Music Biz, which was then known as the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM). At first, James was told he was overqualified for the job he interviewed for; however, sensing his talents and business acumen, the head of the organization decided to fashion a job aligned with his skills: Director of Creative Services. Decades later, James has remained a loyal fixture at the Association, and part of a close-knit work family. “We’ve been there for each other through life’s highs and lows…marriages, deaths, births and so much more. When you’re small like us, you really have to come together,” James says.
James remains inspired by his love for show business to this day, and has had the rare opportunity to see his life come full circle. In 2006, as a guest of Marriott Corporation, he was able to attend the Academy Awards. Ten years later, he found himself presenting a Music Biz Outstanding Achievement Award to Monkees band members Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork on the occasion of their Golden Anniversary. “I have been able to live the most meaningful and incredible experiences of my life through my career,” he enthuses. “I still feel that childlike excitement and enthusiasm for the entertainment industry—it’s just part of my DNA.”